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Sunday, April 01, 2007

It's a hell of a thing when the Pope starts preaching about damnation

Sunday Independent April 1st 2007

THE majority of a group of undergraduates, 90 per cent or so of whom claimed to be Roman Catholics, admitted at a debate in Dublin City University last week that they had no knowledge of the content or meaning of the Angelus. As always when in conversation with people who profess to be Roman Catholics, I was shocked, but not surprised. It has long been my opinion that the reason the Church hangs on to most of its members is through keeping them in total ignorance. If the ordinary members of the Church knew the irrationality of the Church's theology, they would abandon even their nominal membership.

The popes do their best: the late Pope John Paul II frequently outlined Roman Catholic teaching, emphasising that the Church condemned those members who refused to follow it and stating that repeated refusal was effectively self-excommunication. The cheats got round that by saying he was "only" the Pope; and anyway, he was Polish, and everyone knew the Poles were fanatics when it came to religion, something to do with having lived under Communist rule for so long. They hadn't learned the ways of progressive thought and custom.

Probably the first time the majority of Roman Catholics in western Europe (particularly in hypocritical Ireland) had got down on their knees to pray was during the election process for Pope Benedict. "Anyone but him, Lord," they beseeched, "not the prefect of the doctrine or whatever it's called. Give us a nice wishy-washy fella who won't make us feel uncomfortable. And lo! The Lord turned unto them and answered their prayers, in a manner which blasphemous secularists would have described as the sign of the two fingers, and guided the College of Cardinals to elect Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the body that used to be called the Inquisition, as Pope Benedict XVI.

Benedict was on record as having said that we were "impregnated by a culture that has taken away the sense of man's guilt, the sense of one's own guilt". That, he said, was the denial of a key reality of faith that hell exists for sinners. Oops! Even Pope John Paul hadn't been that uncomfortably open. And just last week, Pope Benedict preached a sermon in which he said that society's problem today is that it doesn't talk about hell. It's as though it doesn't exist. "But it does," Benedict stated.

And there's blue bloody murder further down the ranks of Roman Catholicism. How dare he? Probably even his own priests are furious: they're having a hard enough job getting people to pretend to be Catholics, by claiming the name, and getting married in church (the first time they've darkened the door in 10 years) without the Boss talking about the uncomfortable truths of basic teaching. To add insult to injury, the Pope used a Bible story about sex to illustrate his point. It comes from the Gospel according to John, when Jesus stopped the crowd stoning to death a woman taken in adultery. "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," he told the crowd, and slowly they slunk away.

Nowadays, of course, the poor woman would have been reduced to a pulp, because they'd all have thought themselves without sin since the Church doesn't bother to spell out the reality of sin. Indeed, the majority of Catholics don't believe adultery is a sin. Pope Benedict's interpretation put the kibosh on that. "The reading shows that Christ wants to save souls," he told the congregation in Rome. "He is saying that he wants us in paradise with him, but he is saying that those who close their hearts to him will be condemned to eternal damnation." Oops again! And here were the few of them who even knew the bible story thinking that Christ meant that adultery was a minor matter.

There are even people claiming to be Catholics giving out hell because priests with the courage of their vocations refuse to marry them in church if they are divorced. They can't seem to get their heads around the idea that they are daily committing the sins of fornication (sex unsanctified by marriage) and adultery (sex with a person previously or still married to someone who is still alive), either of which qualifies them for eternal damnation. And as for homosexuals, unless they live a life of virginal celibacy accompanied by prayer for strength to"endure their cross of abnormality", they're headed for the roasting nether regions as well.

Pope Benedict seems like a very nice man. He probably doesn't yearn for the good old days of his previous job with the Inquisition, when his predecessors in office had the useful tools of red hot pincers, the rack, and in serious cases, the burning alive of sinners, to enforce the Church's teaching. He probably thinks he's being fairly mild by reminding his flock that Roman Catholicism is not a "feel good" religion. It is only outsiders who are amused by the floundering that goes on when such statements are made, as people rail against the requirements for membership of the Roman Catholic Church.

It requires the abandonment of reason to blind faith as an act of will. You have to believe that the Virgin remained a virgin after giving birth. You have to believe the actual body and blood of the living Christ, who is the actual son of god is present in the Eucharist. If you don't believe these decreed Articles of Faith, you are an apostate, and that in itself is the greatest of sins, and qualifies you for hell, as surely as do fornication and adultery. It ain't easy, having the extraordinary gift of being baptised a Roman Catholic. And there ain't any going back; ignorance is no defence in the court of final judgment, not if you were given the blessing of baptism. The Pope knows that, and he's trying to spell it out. It's the rules or it's hellfire for all eternity.

Awkward critter, ain't he? Personally, I think he's admirable, because I detest hypocrisy. But I also think he should put his own house, that is the Roman Catholic Church, in order, before he starts preaching to others about ethics. Humanists, you see, don't have to believe in hell. They're supposed to do the right thing based on reason, not fear of damnation' and morality. He got extremely sniffy about the EU's 50th birthday celebrations, which didn't have a religious element to them. "A society in which the Christian conscience does not live any more ends up empty and bankrupt."

He went further, and had the brass neck to say that a Christian conscience was needed to promote justice and a sense of responsibility (by which, of course, he meant the Roman Catholic version of Christianity.)

That is quite simply breathtaking arrogance, ignoring the seminal role of Judaism in the formation of European culture and ethical codes. It also insults humanists as incapable of ethical thought and practice, as though their values of tolerance and belief in the universal declaration of rights are inadequate for a morally just and happy life. Humanists, you see, don't have to believe in hell. They're supposed to do the right thing based on reason, not fear of damnation. That's something the Pope, and all the members of his flock, can't get their heads around.

Emer O'Kelly

© Irish Independent